Archive for August, 2008

DE&E: Chapter 2:2

Sunday, August 31st, 2008

In the first paragraph of Chapter 2, Thomas established that in the case of composite substances essence clearly comprises both matter and form. Now he begins to work out in what way this is so.

Nor can it be said that essence signifies the relation between the matter and the form or something superadded to these, for then the essence would of necessity be an accident and extraneous to the thing, and the thing would not be known through its essence, contrary to what pertains to an essence.

Right. Both the matter and the form are necessary, or there’s no dog. If the essence were something that arose out of these, or were added to these, then it would be accidental, and the essence of the dog could be known apart from its essence, which is absurd.

Through the form, surely, which is the act of the matter, the matter is made a being in act and a certain kind of thing. Thus, something that supervenes does not give to the matter existence in act simply, but rather existence in act in a certain way, just as accidents do, as when whiteness makes something actually white. Hence, when such a form is acquired, we do not say that the thing is generated simply but only in a certain way.

A dog can have many forms at the same time. It can, indeed must, have the form of dogginess, or it isn’t a dog. But it can also have the form of manginess. Form makes “a being in act and a certain kind of thing,” but a form that supervenes, like manginess, doesn’t give existence to the dog. It merely makes an existing dog mangy. “Hence, when such a form is acquired, we do not say that the thing is generated simply but only in a certain way.”

Remember that for a composite being to be “generated” means that it has come to be, as when a new human being is conceived. This is the fullest sense. We can say that mange is generated in a dog “in a certain way” when it acquires the form of manginess; but this is clearly an analogical sense of the word “generated”. (I talked about how words can have a scale of analogical senses in DE&E Chapter 1 (d).

CT 62: Effect of Intellectual Removal of Personal Properties on the Divine Essence

Sunday, August 31st, 2008

Whoops! Somehow I skipped Chapter 62 of Compendium Theologiae, and moved right along to Chapter 63. It’s time to fix that.

A bit of review. In CT 61, Thomas shows that if you abstract away the personal properties of the persons of the Trinity, you have also abstracted away the persons and been left with the Divine Oneness. In this chapter, given the title, he appears to be going to discuss the effect of the same action on the divine essence, which is to say, on the Divine Oneness. Let’s see what happens.

If the question were to be asked whether, in consequence of the removal of the personal properties by intellectual abstraction, the divine essence would remain, the answer is that in one respect it would remain, but in another it would not.

It’s clear to me that the divine essence would remain; after all, we spent chapters and chapters discussing it before we ever got to the Trinity, and Aristotle proved the existence of God without ever hearing of the Trinity. But Thomas says that in one sense it would not. How so?

(I have to ask: to what extent does the divine essence remain before we abstract away the personal properties, given the weakness of the human intellect and our complete inability to comprehend the divine essence? I suppose Thomas would say, “To a limited extent, even more limited by the removal of the personal properties.” Fair enough.)

Intellectual abstraction can take place in two ways. The first is by abstracting form from matter. In this abstraction the mind proceeds from the more formal to the more material; the first subject remains until the end, and the ultimate form is removed first.

This, I gather, is the normal course of apprehension of a substance. The ultimate form would be the essence, or substantial form, of the substance; and then one would start in on the accidental forms; and eventually, all one would have left is the matter, which is the principle of individuation, and hence the first subject.

The second way of abstracting is by the abstraction of the universal from the particular, and this proceeds according to an order that is, in a sense, the opposite; the individuating material conditions are first removed, so that what is common may be retained.

And this is the opposite. In the first way, we remove universals becoming more and more particular; in the second way, we remove particulars, beginning with identity, become more and more universal.

In God, of course, there are neither matter and form, nor universal and particular. Nevertheless there is in the Godhead something that is common, and something that is proper and that supposes the common nature; for, in our human way of thinking, the divine persons are to the divine essence what individual supposita are to a common nature. According to the first type of intellectual abstraction, therefore, if we remove the personal properties, which are the subsisting persons themselves, the common nature does not remain. But in the second type of abstraction it does remain.

Remember that supposita are individual substances. A person is an individual substances with a rational nature. The divine persons are not supposita in the full sense; but in the divine context they are analogous to supposita.

What Thomas seems to be saying is that if we proceed in the first way, and abstract away the personal properties, we must have previously abstracted away the divine essence itself, that being more “universal”. But if we work in the opposite direction, and abstract away the most particular things, the personal properties, we still have the more “universal”.

Not that “particular” and “universal” really apply in this case, except by analogy with creatures.

I’m not at all sure why this matters.

Philosophia Perennis

Sunday, August 31st, 2008

A number of Roman Catholic philosophers have started a new group blog, Philosophia Perennis. It looks interesting, so far.

DE&E: Chapter 2:1

Saturday, August 30th, 2008

Thomas has established that the word being most truly and properly applies to substances, that is, to things that exist of themselves, like you and me and your dog, and further that composite substances, those composed of form and matter (again, like me and you and your dog), are easier to understand than simple substances. In Chapter 2, he begins to analyze the essence of such substances.

In composite substances we find form and matter, as in man there are soul and body.

So in man, the soul is the form, and the body is the matter.

We cannot say, however, that either of these is the essence of the thing. That matter alone is not the essence of the thing is clear, for it is through its essence that a thing is knowable and is placed in a species or genus. But matter is not a principle of cognition; nor is anything determined to a genus or species according to its matter but rather according to what something is in act.

Matter is potency, and not really knowable, so a thing’s matter can’t be its essence. Note that the term “matter” means something different in this context than in contemporary English; I’ve not worked out what the relation is between the metaphysical and physical senses of the word. But suppose you could directly apprehend the matter in your spouse: the amount of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, calcium, etc., etc. Would any of that knowledge get at the essence of your spouse? Clearly not. (I’ve no idea whether this is a valid move in this context; I might just be confusing the issue. But it makes sense to me.)

Form makes a thing what it is, so you can’t take about a thing’s essence apart from its form. But…

Nor is form alone the essence of a composite thing, however much certain people may try to assert this. From what has been said, it is clear that the essence is that which is signified by the definition of the thing. The definition of a natural substance, however, contains not only form but also matter; otherwise, the definitions of natural things and mathematical ones would not differ.

If it has the form of a dog, but no matter, it’s not a dog. Consequently, it must be part of the essence of a dog, and any other composite thing, that it *is* a composite thing.

Nor can it be said that matter is placed in the definition of a natural substance as something added to the essence or as some being beyond the essence of the thing, for that type of definition is more proper to accidents, which do not have a perfect essence and which include in their definitions a subject beyond their own genus. Therefore, the essence clearly comprises both matter and form.

As I say, if there’s no matter, there’s no dog. Dogs can be black, white, brown, or beige, big or small, friendly or fierce, noisy or quiet; four-legged, three-legged, or even (as one dog I saw a video of on YouTube was) two-legged; all without ceasing to be a dog. All of these things are accidents. But the presence of matter isn’t an accident, something added on to the essence of a dog. Why? Because a dog that can’t be petted is no dog at all.

So “essence clearly comprises both matter and form.”

That’s clear enough–in fact, it’s plain as plain, once it’s pointed it. But I didn’t know it a few days ago.

DE&E: Chapter 1:4

Friday, August 29th, 2008

Reverting back, momentarily, to the first paragraph of Chapter 1, recall that Thomas describes two different senses of the word “being”: being as divided into the ten categories, and being as the truth of propositions. “Light” is a being in the first sense, and “Darkness”, being a privation, is a being only in the second sense. It occurred to me that we might refer to the first sort of being as a being proper, and the second sort as a being by courtesy.

Anyway, let us move along to the fourth paragraph of the chapter.

But because being is absolutely and primarily said of substances, and only secondarily and in a certain sense said of accidents, essence too is properly and truly in substances and is in accidents only in a certain way and in a certain sense.

Recall that substance is the first of the ten categories; which implies, now I come to think of it, that the other nine categories are all accidents. So a substance is a being and has an essence in the most proper and true sense, and accidents are beings and have essence only in a certain way and in a certain sense. So where we started with two senses of the word being we now have three: the being of substances, the lesser being of accidents, and the being by courtesy of privations and negations.

I picked up a book the other day by a Dominican friar named McCabe; it’s called On Aquinas. I’ve not read much of it yet, but of the little I have one idea that’s stuck is that Thomas (and Aristotle before him) use many terms in an analogical sense. He speaks of this in the context of souls. The soul of a cockroach is both different and greater than the soul of a plant; the soul of a dog is different and greater than the soul of a cockroach; the soul of a man is different and greater than the soul of a dog. In none of these cases do we mean quite the same thing by “soul”. And yet, what we do mean is similar. The soul of a dog is like the soul of a man but only in a certain way, and in a certain sense.

I see the same thing going on here with words like being and essence. They have a number of greater and lesser senses, all sufficiently similar to warrant using the same term, but all sufficiently different to be a stumbling block to the beginner. Whiteness is the essence of an accident, that of having the color “white”; humanity is the essence of a human person. Both are abstracted from the thing that has them, and become objects of thought, terms that are apprehended by the intellect, and that may be used in propositions. But the sense in which humanity is an essence is different and greater than the sense in which whiteness is an essence.

Lo, what light through yonder window breaks? It is the East, and understanding is the dawn!


Now some substances are simple and some are composite, and essence is in both, though in the simple substances in a truer and more noble way, as these have existence in a nobler way: indeed, the simple substances are the cause of the composite ones, or at least this is true with respect to the first simple substance, which is God. But because the essences of these substances are more hidden from us, we ought to begin with the essences of composite substances, as learning is easier when we begin with the easier things.

Again, it seems counter-intuitive that composites are easier than things that are simple. But we must remember what Thomas means by “simple” and “composite”. A composite substance consists of matter and form, of potency and act. These are two different ways of looking at it, but they are (so I gather) fundamentally equivalent. A substance has potency because it contains matter; it is its form that actualizes it, that gives it act. So simple substances are substances of pure act, with no potency, of pure form, with no matter. Which is to say, angels and other spirits, and above them, the Lord God. But we cannot perceive these simple substances with our senses, and so we cannot apprehend their essences from our sense of them, and so although simpler they are indeed harder for us to grasp.

And so, in Chapter 2, we will begin to look in more detail at the composite substances, like your rose bushes, your dog, and your children.

DE&E: Chapter 1:3

Thursday, August 28th, 2008

Thomas continues to explain the term essence:

Since that through which a thing is constituted in its proper genus or species is what is signified by the definition indicating what the thing is, philosophers introduced the term quiddity to mean the same as the term essence; and this is the same thing that the Philosopher frequently terms what it is to be a thing, that is, that through which something has being as a particular kind of thing.

A definition of thing signifies something less than the fullness of the thing. I can give you a definition of this apple, and the definition will tell you what an apple is, and that this is an apple; but it won’t tell you the exact pattern of red and yellow on the apple’s surface, or whether it is bruised. The essence of the apple is what the definition of an apple signifies, while the color pattern and the bruises are accidents.

Now, the definition of a thing is the answer to the question “What is it?”, or, in Latin, “Quid est?” Hence, the essence of a thing is also called its “whatness,” or “quiddity.”

Essence is also called form, for the certitude of every thing is signified through its form, as Avicenna says in his Metaphysicae I, cap. 6.

Though I believe Thomas makes a distinction between essence and form a little further on. An apple is a composite of form and matter, and it is part of its essence to be so. Therefore, essence cannot simply be form when dealing with material objects.

The same thing is also called nature, taking nature in the first of the four senses that Boethius distinguishes in his book De Persona et Duabus Naturis cap. 1 (PL 64, 1341B), in the sense, in other words, that nature is what we call everything that can in any way be captured by the intellect, for a thing is not intelligible except through its definition and essence.

So, in at least one sense, nature=essence=quiddity.

And so the Philosopher says in V Metaphysicae cap. 4 (1014b36) that every substance is a nature. But the term nature used in this way seems to signify the essence of a thing as it is ordered to the proper operation of the thing, for no thing is without its proper operation. The term quiddity, surely, is taken from the fact that this is what is signified by the definition. But the same thing is called essence because the being has existence through it and in it.

But nature and essence and quiddity, though they all refer to the same thing, do so for different reasons.

I’m curious about the statement I bolded. “…no thing is without its proper operation.” Clearly, “operation” is being used in a different sense than I’m used to. I think I understand what it means, though. A thing behaves in accordance with its nature–at least, things are supposed to. The higher the thing, the more likely it is to behave in an unnatural way. Stones always act like stones. Rabid animals, and animals maddened by hunger, ill-treatment, or injury, can act very differently from normal animals. Men and women, being afflicted by sin, frequently act in ways that are not in accord with human nature–to the extent that we often think that self-destructive and wicked acts are part of human nature.

So I presume that a thing’s “proper operation” is simply “the way it is supposed to behave”.

Primary and Secondary Substance

Wednesday, August 27th, 2008

I am a primary substance, and so are you. “Man” is a secondary substance. Man o’War was a primary substance; “Horse” is a secondary substance. “Man” and “Horse” are also species.

I’ve been pondering this for a while now, trying to figure out why secondary substances are called substances, and I think I’ve got it. When I apprehend a particular man, someone I see on the street, for example, my intellect apprehends him as a universal, “Man”. Thus, the primary substance, this man on the street, form my intellect as the secondary substance “Man”.

So primary and secondary substances are very naturally related. A secondary substance is a primary substance as apprehended.

I also have a conjecture about how these terms got their names. I’m betting that somewhere St. Thomas, or possibly Aristotle, says something like, “The word substance is used in two senses. The primary sense is thus and so, and the secondary sense is thus and so.” He might even note that this man in the street is prior to this species, “Man”, which is why the primary is first and the secondary is second.

DE&E: Chapter 1:2

Wednesday, August 27th, 2008

In yesterday’s passage, Thomas distinguishes between two senses of the word being. In the first sense, a being is something that is, as described by Aristotle’s ten categories. The second sense, the word “being” is used for things that appear in the place of a term in a proposition, whether they are real things or not. Darkness, for example, is a being in this second sense, but, as it is simply the absence of light (the privation of light), it is not a being in the first sense.

Moving on, Thomas starts to explain the word essence:

The term essence is not taken from being in the second sense, for in this sense some things are called beings that have no essence, as is clear with privations. Rather, the term essence is taken from being in the first sense. Thus in Metaphysicae V, com. 14, the Commentator explains the cited text from Aristotle by saying that being, in the first sense, is what signifies the essence of a thing.

Gilson says that when a being is defined, its essence is that part of it that corresponds to the definition. Now, Aristotle meant the ten categories to cover all conceivable kinds of beings, rather as a biological taxonomy is meant to cover all living things. I gather that some think that the ten categories aren’t complete; given that I’ve hardly looked at them, I have no opinion.

And since, as said above, being in this sense is divided into the ten categories, essence signifies something common to all natures through which the various beings are placed in the various genera and species, as humanity is the essence of man, and so on.

OK, so beings have natures, and it is by their natures that beings are placed in the various genera and species. It is not yet clear to me whether the ten categories are the same as the genera, or whether the categories are divided into genera. I’ve also been wondering whether genera nest: whether the kingdom, phylum, class, family, and genus of taxonomy are all genera in Thomas’ sense.

But anyway, humanity is the nature of man; all human beings share this human nature, this humanity. And so this is our essence: something common to all of us. As rational animals, we also have an animal nature; and so our animality is something common to us and all other animals of whatever species. So we have the essence of animality and the essence of humanity.

I believe Thomas has more to say about genera and species further on, so I’ll hold onto those questions for the time being.

DE&E: Chapter 1:1

Tuesday, August 26th, 2008

Thomas begins,

As the Philosopher says in V Metaphysicae cap. 7 (1017a22-35), being has two senses. In one sense, being signifies that which is divided into the ten categories; in another sense, that which signifies the truth of propositions. The difference between these is that, in the second sense, anything can be called a being about which an affirmative proposition can be formed, even if the thing posits nothing in reality. In this way, privations and negations are called beings, as when we say that affirmation is opposed to negation, or that blindness is in the eye. But in the first sense, nothing can be called a being unless it posits something in reality, and thus in this first sense blindness and similar things are not beings.

Oh, there’s so much here; I’m glad I didn’t try to tackle this a few months ago. Let’s take it bit by bit; and perhaps my interlocutors will gently correct any misunderstandings on my part.

the Philosopher: Aristotle.

…being signifies that which is divided into the ten categories: Aristotle tried to establish a set of ten categories into which every manner of being would fall. I found a list of them at Wikipedia: Substance, Quantity, Quality, Relation, Place, Time, Position, State (or Habitus), Action, Affection. The categories are basic to Aristotelian logic.

…that which signifies the truth of propositions: I thought I understood what this meant, until I tried to explain it.

Suppose I say, “Murder is evil.” This is an affirmative proposition. In this sense, “evil” can be said to be a being. But evil is the privation of good; this statement is equivalent to “Murder is not good.” “Good” is the real being, real in both the first sense and the second; “evil” is a being only in the second.

So much is clear from the remainder of the paragraph. It’s still not clear to me in what sense “evil” signifies the truth of propositions…unless Thomas simply means that it’s an object that can be used as a term in a true proposition.

DE&E: Prolog

Monday, August 25th, 2008

I’ve chosen to go with Robert Miller’s translation of De Ente et Essentia; you can find the whole thing at the link. Here’s the prolog:

A small error at the outset can lead to great errors in the final conclusions, as the Philosopher says in I De Caelo et Mundo cap. 5 (271b8-13), and thus, since being and essence are the things first conceived of by the intellect, as Avicenna says in Metaphysicae I, cap. 6, in order to avoid errors arising from ignorance about these two things, we should resolve the difficulties surrounding them by explaining what the terms being and essence each signify and by showing how each may be found in various things and how each is related to the logical intentions of genus, species, and difference.

We’re going to look at the terms being and essence, because these are the things “first conceived of by the intellect.” And this is clearly true, upon reflection; as I look around, I say “There’s a chair!” or “There’s a book!” or “There’s Jane!” What’s there is a being, and what it is is the being’s essence. But of course I’m getting ahead of things.

I have some notion of what Thomas means by genus, species, and difference, but no notion at all of why he calls them intentions. Perhaps this will become clear as he goes forward.

Since we ought to acquire knowledge of simple things from composite ones and come to know the prior from the posterior, in instructing beginners we should begin with what is easier…

I’m all in favor of beginning with what is easier. I find it counter-intuitive that it should be easier to acquire knowledge of composite things than of simple ones: aren’t simpler things easier to understand? But I suspect by “composite things” he means beings that we can sense, which are composites of matter and form, and of potency and act. Simple things would include immaterial substances, such as angels, and God Himself; and these, as we can’t know them directly, are harder to understand.

…and so we shall begin with the signification of being and proceed from there to the signification of essence.

Being being simpler than essence, one presumes.